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Investigations Ukraine in retrospective: Journalists’ safety vs Political Environment

Murdered journalist’s attackers receive light sentences; main suspect remains free

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special project by the Kyiv Post, “Dying for Truth,” a series of stories documenting violence against journalists in Ukraine. Since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, more than 50 journalists have been killed across Ukraine — including eight since 2014. Most of the crimes have been poorly investigated, and the killers remain unpunished. The project is supported by the Justice for Journalists Foundation. Content is independent of the donor. All the stories in the series can be found here.

An original article is available on the Kyiv Post website. 

On the night of Feb. 19, 2014, one of the coldest and bloodiest days of the EuroMaidan Revolution, Viacheslav Veremiy finished work at the Vesti newspaper late at night. It was his first day back after a month on medical leave – he was injured during the revolution’s first clashes on Hrushevskoho Street in Kyiv. Shrapnel from a flashbang exploded next to him and hit him in the eye.

On Feb. 18, Veremiy filed a story on the clashes on Institutska Street, where Berkut riot police were beating and arresting everybody they could catch. Late that night, he ordered a taxi and went home to his wife and little son.

“After his injury, I was constantly begging him to be as cautious as possible, calling him or even taxi drivers who were driving him to work. That night he did not take my calls,” Veremiy’s widow Svitlana Kirilash told the Kyiv Post.

On his ride home, Veremiy was passing the crossroad of Velyka Zhytomyrska and Volodymyrska Streets in central Kyiv. There, he saw a group of some 200 men waiting for something or somebody, armed with bats and guns. He started filming them on his smartphone.

But the armed men spotted him too. Security cameras in the area captured what happened next. Almost immediately, someone threw a flashbang that forced the car to stop. Then, more than 10 men approached the car and started hitting it and shooting at it. Next, they dragged out all three passengers — the driver, Veremiy, and his colleague from the newspaper’s IT department and started violently beating them. While two managed to escape, Veremiy fell down and was surrounded by at least five people with bats.

When they finally stopped beating him, Veremiy tried to escape but was shot in the back. He died in the hospital the next morning on Feb. 19, 2014.

The Vesti newspaper belonged to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s tax minister, Oleksandr Klymenko, and was critical of the EuroMaidan Revolution. Unexpectedly, its journalist became one of the victims of the Yanukovych regime.

Veremiy was included in the Heavenly Hundred – the list of more than 100 people killed during the EuroMaidan Revolution that would eventually oust Yanukovych from power in winter 2014.

Almost six years later, on Sept. 10, 2019, the Supreme Court of Ukraine sentenced Yuriy Krysin, the leader of the group of thugs who killed Veremiy, to five years in prison for the events that occurred that night. His actions were classified as hooliganism. He denies killing Veremiy.

The National Police identified four people who attacked Veremiy – Krysin, Pavlo Byalay, Serhiy Chemes and Dzhalal Aliev. Chemes was arrested in 2017 and soon started cooperating with the investigation. He was sentenced to three years in prison and is now one of the witnesses in Veremiy’s case. Byalay is still awaiting trial.

Police are still searching for Aliev, the main suspect in Veremiy’s murder. Investigators say he was the one who shot the journalist and is believed to be hiding either in Russia or in the Russia-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine.

Krysin was arrested in 2014, originally as a murder suspect, but his case was soon reclassified as hooliganism. Courts have been holding closed hearings on the case against him since December 2014.

In December 2017, the Shevchenkivsky District Court of Kyiv sentenced Krysin to a four-year suspended sentence. The lawyers representing Veremiy’s wife and prosecutors filed an appeal, demanding the sentence be changed to six years in prison.

Meanwhile, Krysin was out of jail. Activists found him in the children’s ward of the National Heart Institute hospital in Kyiv in February 2018. He was accused of hiding there, but claimed to be undergoing medical treatment.

Several months later, on June 6, 2018, the Appeals Court of Kyiv changed Krysin’s suspended sentence to five years in prison.

Soon after, Krysin’s defense lawyers filed a cassation claiming the court should return the suspended sentence as the defendant had expressed remorse and had to take care of his children. Kirilash, Veremiy’s wife, said she never heard words of remorse from Krysin.

“Unfortunately, Krysin only received a sentence for hooliganism, not for murder. He did not confess to the murder. Aliev was the one who shot Veremiy. And Krysin was finishing him off with a bat together with some other thugs,” said Yevhenia Zakrevska, a lawyer for Kirilash and the families of other EuroMaidan victims.

Svitlana Kirilash, widow of Viacheslav Veremiy shows an album, Veremiy’s friends and colleagues prepared for his son Maksym, during the interview with the Kyiv Post in Kyiv. The album features pictures and stories about Veremiy, told by his friends. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

 

Veremiy and Vesti

Veremiy started his career in journalism as a reporter at Gazeta Po Kievsky in 2005, where he mostly wrote about the city. He also met his wife at the paper. The couple got married and had a son Maksym in 2009.

In 2010, Veremiy was one of the first journalists to publish an investigation into the construction of President Yanukovych’s luxury residence Mezhyhirya in Kyiv Oblast. However, in 2011, Gazeta was closed.

Between 2011 and 2013, Veremiy worked for the Obozrevatel news website. In 2013, he also briefly wrote for Segodnya newspaper before joining a new project, the Vesti newspaper.

“He was a very nice, easy-going and honest person, always ready to help others. He was really a hardworking journalist who took criticism as a lesson and was always trying to improve,” Marina Petik, the former editor of Vesti and Veremiy’s supervisor in 2014, told the Kyiv Post.

Vesti was a new and popular newspaper. Media expert Otar Dovzhenko describes it as “one of the expensive and effective tools of influence created by representatives of the so-called ‘Yanukovych Family’ of politicians and businessmen.”

In 2013 alone, the group made huge investments to extend their influence on public opinion by creating a series of pro-government, pro-regime media outlets. Oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko, widely known as “Yanukovych’s wallet,” bought Ukrainian Media Holding. Then-Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov founded the Capital newspaper. Then-Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko created the 112 TV channel and Klymenko created Vesti Media Holding.

The new outlets were part of preparations for the 2015 presidential election, meant to help Yanukovych get re-elected.

The EuroMaidan Revolution changed these plans. Yanukovych and all these newly-minted media owners fled to Russia, but most of their media outlets still operate in Ukraine.

Despite their ownership, it wouldn’t be fair to refer to this string of media ventures as exclusively propagandistic.

“The newspaper Vesti, headed by the former chief editor of Segodnya newspaper Ihor Guzhva, was a very good and professionally-made product. And they were distributing it for free. That made it popular among citizens of Kyiv and other big cities,” Dovzhenko said.

At the same time, unlike other oligarch-owned TV channels that openly supported Yanukovych and were controlled by the Presidential Administration, Vesti was playing its own, more sophisticated game, the expert added.

The newspaper was very cautious when it came to reporting on EuroMaidan, publishing no openly pro-Yanukovych propaganda. Instead, the newspaper focused on producing stories trying to alternately defame or calm down the protesters, reporting that the protests were fading out or writing about sex workers supposedly flooding the protest camp, looking for clients.

“I think the editorial team understood that Kyiv supported Maidan. And, for them, it was important to connect with Kyivans. However, stories, submitted by the journalists were frequently rewritten by the editors and the emphasis was changed,” Dovzhenko said.

Petik claims that Vesti had no special policy on covering EuroMaidan. It depended on the views of the particular editor. However, journalists frequently argued about how to report stories during the revolution and some quit the newspaper because of that.

“We really didn’t know who owned the newspaper at first. It was a new project,” Petik said.

Veremiy’s widow Kirilash confirmed that. She said that Veremiy accepted the offer to work at Vesti following the example of his colleagues at Segodnya.

“Slava was a reporter in the Kyiv department, writing mostly about car accidents, events and other city news before the EuroMaidan. So we weren’t even thinking about the editorial policy,” Kirilash said.

Like many other Vesti journalists, Veremiy supported EuroMaidan. Soon after the first clashes took place, many journalists started noticing strange tendencies at the paper, Kirilash recalls. They were submitting stories about the protests, but after the stories got to chief editor Guzhva, he would make them sound negative on the EuroMaidan activists.

Guzhva, now the owner and chief editor of the Strana.ua news site, has been living in Austria since January 2018, having fled charges of extortion. He didn’t respond to a request for comments.

“Slava didn’t like it, but he was not thinking of quitting the job as we had a four-year-old son to take care of,” Kirilash said.

Veremiy’s son Maksym, now 10, remembers his father as a hero. In February 2014, his mother told him his father flew to heaven. Only later did she muster the strength to tell their son what really happened.

This video, made by a witness Interior Ministry does not identify, shows a gang of pro-government thugs violently beating Vesti newspaper journalist Viacheslav Veremiy in early hours of Feb. 19, 2014.  Later Veremiy tried to escape and was shot in the back. The journalist died of wounds that morning. (Courtesy of Interior Ministry of Ukraine)

Partial justice

Court hearings shed light on the events of the night when Veremiy was killed.

In court, Krysin testified that he owned a security firm called Fifth Region. He said that, on Feb. 17, 2014, he got a call from his friend Armen Sarkisyan, who asked him to find 300 men and bring them to Sofiyivska Square the next day.

Krysin only managed to find 15 people. On Sofyivska Square, in the office of the Interior Ministry of Ukraine, his group and some 200 other thugs got bats and other weapons and headed to the crossing of Velyka Zhytomyrska and Volodymyrska Streets. They were ordered to attack the EuroMaidan activists retreating from Maidan Nezalezhnosti and Mykhailivska Square.

That’s when they saw a taxi stopping at an intersection nearby and a man trying to film them on his phone.

Krysin confessed that he beat Veremiy but said he did not shoot the journalist.

Besides Veremiy’s case, Krysin and two other assailants, Chemes and Byalay, figure in other EuroMaidan-related criminal proceedings. Krysin was arrested in relation to Veremiy’s murder in 2014, but after a closed court hearing, prosecutors reclassified his case from murder to hooliganism and decreased the maximum sentence from 15 to seven years in prison.

Moreover, the court released Krysin under his own personal guarantee until the next court session.

“And during that period he managed to violate the law several times. He was caught on unregistered weapons possession violations and filmed during a bandit raid on a gas station. However, he still managed to get to the court sessions in our case on time, so investigators apparently saw nothing wrong with that,” Kirilash said.

One of Krysin’s employees, Chemes, was arrested in March 2017 and soon started cooperating with investigators in exchange for a significant decrease in his jail term.

“It was very hard for us to agree to that. However, unlike Krysin, he really was sorry for his actions and helped get important evidence on Krysin and many other thugs,” Kirilash said.

Chemes was suspected of torturing EuroMaidan activists and beating Veremiy. He faced up to 10 years in prison, but was sentenced to three years and three months behind bars. At that moment, he had already spent 1.5 years in a pre-trial detention center, which under Ukrainian law counts as three years of prison.

“As of today, he has already served his sentence and is a witness in many EuroMaidan-related cases,” Kirilash said.

Byalay is in a more serious situation. According to investigators, Byalay, also arrested in 2017, was the person shooting at the car carrying Veremiy, so he is currently under investigation for attempted murder. His trial is only about to start, and the court is currently preparing the case.

As for Krysin, he has done everything he could to escape justice since 2014. He has prolonged the court process, threatened prosecutors and hidden in a hospital.

Krysin remained free for two years, until the court sentenced him to a four-year suspended sentence in December 2017. Kirilash said that only the pressure from civil society and the strength of her lawyer helped their family fight for justice.

Krysin was arrested again in 2018 and sentenced to five years in prison. The Supreme Court upheld Krysin’s sentence on Sept. 10, and he will continue to serve his term at a prison in Toretsk, a city in Donetsk Oblast, where he was taken in 2018.

“Five years is not much, but justice was at least partially restored. However, this won’t bring me back my husband and the father of my son,” Kirilash said.

Partial justice in Veremiy’s case is indeed an exception. Most of the EuroMaidan-related cases are far from solved, and Zakrevska continues to fight for justice in all of the cases. Last month the lawyer went on hunger strike to protest the suspension of the EuroMaidan cases and was soon joined by about a dozen EuroMaidan activists.

In November, the Prosecutor General’s office transferred the EuroMaidan cases to the State Investigation Bureau, but the Verkhovna Rada failed to vote for an important amendment that would allow case investigators to also be transferred to the Bureau without undergoing a hiring competition.

Although Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka told the Kyiv Post that the EuroMaidan investigations remain a priority for Ukrainian law enforcement, Zakrevska and other supporters of the EuroMaidan victims believed the transfer would force the investigations to start from square one.

Zakrevska’s hunger strike resonated with the public, and after 12 days, the parliament voted to adopt the amendment she was protesting for on Dec. 3, reviving the investigations of the EuroMaidan murders.